Choice of Edwards Weakens Senate Democrats

Sen. John Kerry’s (D.-Mass.) selection of Sen. John Edwards (D.-N.C.) as his running mate has one possible consequence that few have noticed: it gives Republicans a slightly greater edge in the U.S. Senate.

Kerry has already missed roughly 90% of all Senate votes this year, and occasionally his absence has made a difference. Now add Edwards’ absence, and suddenly it matters a lot more. Republicans could now be in a position to resurrect and pass their concurrent budget resolution, which had all but died in the Senate. It is less likely, but the newly skewed balance of Senate power could also lead to passage of other legislation. It will almost certainly prevent liberals from breaking conservative filibusters and points of order against their spending initiatives as appropriations begin.

Conversely, if Republicans are ruthless enough, they can schedule votes to force one or both of the running mates back to Washington at the most inopportune moments.

A One-Vote Swing

Because it is immune to filibuster, the federal budget is the special case where the two Democrats’ disappearance could have the greatest effect. Senate leaders had given up last month on passing a budget this year because four moderate-to-liberal Republicans–Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (Maine), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), and John McCain (Ariz.)–defected and opposed it, meaning the resolution would narrowly fall short. These moderates wanted to use the budget process to block any new tax cuts from slipping into law.

But now John Kerry and John Edwards will be on the campaign trail for four months. If Kerry’s performance so far is any indication, the two will likely miss nearly every vote in the Senate. So, do the new Senate math: the balance of power shifts from 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, 1 Independent, to 51R, 46D, 1I.

Add Independent Jim Jeffords to the Democrats and switch conservative Zell Miller (D.) to the Republicans, and you have a working Senate of 52R, 46D.

Account for the four anti-budget Republicans and you get 48 in favor of the budget, 50 against. Vice President Dick Cheney can break a 49-49 tie (only a majority of those present and voting is needed for passage), meaning that a one-vote swing might be enough to pass a budget. A generous offer to any number of moderate Democrats willing to deal–retiring Sen. John Breaux (D.-La.), for example, or Ben Nelson (D.-Neb.)–could tip the balance. Even genuine liberals in the Senate are occasionally bought with enough pork for their home states, and sometimes they’re more likely to break ranks if the margin is closer.

Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R.-Okla.) has already been pondering this new situation, a spokeswoman says.

If Republicans are really ambitious, they could even add a week to the calendar and bring back some of the more controversial budget provisions, such as oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Because ANWR drilling will make money for the government, it can be passed as part of a concurrent budget resolution.) The last time someone tried to add that to the budget, it was barred on a narrow 52-48 vote.

Some would argue that this whole idea is exploitative, ungentlemanly, and demeaning for senators. Complete nonsense.

Two years ago, Republicans secreted Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.)–still recovering from open-heart surgery–back to Capitol Hill one night because they knew their effort to save the missile defense program from obliteration would come down to a single vote. They were ready to spring a surprise that night–to wheel Helms onto the Senate floor on a gurney to cast the deciding vote. Then the Democrats got word of Helms’ presence and cancelled the vote–meaning the ailing Helms had just been shipped around town for nothing.

By the same token, in May 2001, Democrats angrily rebuked Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.) when he tried to be a gentleman and leave a late-night Senate session early to give the ailing Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.) a break.

Politics at its Silliest

Despite his spokeswoman’s dismissal of the whole idea, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) has already shown he’s willing to play rough in exploiting Kerry’s dereliction of Senate duty. When Kerry made a rare and brief stop in Washington to take a vote on veterans’ health funding on June 22, Frist denied him the chance by extending the debate until Kerry had to leave town. “Senator Kerry, who hasn’t been here all year, who’s missed 80 percent of all votes this year, parachutes in for a day and then he’ll be taking off again,” Frist told reporters at the time. “I can simply say that the scheduling of floor votes remains with the managers.”

Kerry sheepishly called it “politics at its silliest,” but that silliness prevented him from making a handful of campaign appearances in New Mexico. And that illustrates another important point: Even if it is a longshot to expect legislative victories from Kerry and Edwards’ absence, close votes could actually force Kerry or Edwards off the campaign trail and back to Washington, lest they be embarrassed–as Kerry was on May 11, when his absence was all that prevented an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

If Frist is really willing to play hardball, he can schedule votes designed to drag at least one of the candidates back to DC to conflict with Kerry-Edwards campaign events scheduled in swing states.

He could even schedule such votes, bring back the candidates, and then…reschedule the votes. Such a strategy would still have plausible deniability for Frist. Besides, Democratic complaints over obscure parliamentary chicanery in the Senate would have little traction with the public.

This could add up to big headaches for Kerry and Edwards if Republicans are willing to take sufficient advantage. There are real reasons why a two-senator presidential ticket is such a rare thing, and also why so few Presidents have been elected from the Senate in the last century.